TERRETON--Last year’s outdoor track season brought the West Jefferson High School girls track team to uncharted territory.
Almost exactly a year ago this week at Firth’s track, the Panthers celebrated a first. They gathered for photos and took turns holding their newly acquired hardware upon surpassing defending district and state champion Salmon on day 2 of the 2A District 6 meet to win 115-99. The trophy prompted much chatter among athletes, coaches and administrators alike for several days, all curious as to whether or not the Panthers had won a district championship in track before.
The answer became clear upon scouring West Jefferson’s trophy case. After nearly two decades of being won by Salmon or Firth, the 2018 2A District 6 girls track championship was indeed the first for the Panthers.
Acknowledging that milestone brings a smile to the faces of relay teammates McKenzie Sermon, Malaika Rogers, Sage Wood, Jordi Holdaway and Cambree Hall, and reflection from third-year head coach Melinda Schwieder. She said she encourages students to participate in a spring sport, which is not always an easy sell when West Jefferson’s facilities have nothing to stop the wind and take the brunt of east Idaho’s ever-changing weather. The numbers have gradually grown for track, however, as has the interest.
“I can remember when we had like eight kids. Now it’s in the 40s,” Schwieder said. “They show up to practice in rain, wind and snow. The biggest thing is, it’s not just one girl. They have great work ethic and a lot of heart. They’re so humble at the same time.”
Nine days after that first district title, the Panthers claimed a second-place trophy at state to match a program-best finish from 2016. Melba won the meet 104-79 over West Jefferson, but the separation between the other trophies was much smaller. McCall-Donnelly was right behind in third with 76.5 points and Salmon was fourth with 75.
Those margins could be much smaller this month. As it stands based on current athletic.net rankings, this year’s 2A girls track state meet could potentially be the most intense and wide open trophy race of the entire weekend. West Jefferson is right in the middle of it along with defending champion Melba, Cole Valley Christian and fellow 2A District 6 team Firth.
While the Panthers were sad to see multiple state medalist distance runner Allie Severe graduate, they also knew they returned several athletes from their state runner-up team.
“I was so excited since the points were so close,” said Rogers, a junior. “We knew we were returning a lot of our scorers from state and we could become even better.”
“Every time we go to state, it just makes us more motivated,” added Holdaway, a senior three-sport athlete who recently signed as a preferred walk-on with Boise State volleyball. “I feel like we all want to win this year.”
The Panthers have won three meets this year and have also had impressive showings when they had their full team. They took third at the Sugar-Salem Icebreaker on March 21 behind track juggernauts Madison (5A) and Sugar-Salem (3A), and second to Sugar-Salem at the Salmon Invitational on April 18. While two-time defending 4x100 and 4x200 state champion teammates Sermon, Rogers, Wood and Holdaway have contributed to those finishes, they have had plenty of help. Distance runner Elizabeth Spencer (sophomore), thrower Mayla Ivie (junior), multi-event runner Suhay Puente (sophomore), jumper and sprinter Audrey McDonald (junior), distance runner Kaylee Dalling (freshman) and sprinter and relay runner Hall (freshman) have also become consistent point scorers this spring.
The Panthers almost didn’t get Hall, who was initially unsure about participating in track this year. Schwieder is one of her teachers and would often bring up track, as did some of the West Jefferson upperclassmen.
“Every time I’d pass her in the hall, I’d go, ‘Cambree, are you gonna run track?’” said Sermon, a senior.
When Hall did show up, Schwieder gave her a proposition: give it a shot for two weeks and if she absolutely hated it, she didn’t have to come back. She not only stayed, but began producing 100 and 200 times impressive enough to land her on the 4x200 team with Sermon, Rogers and Wood.
Hall said concern about keeping up with her classes and missing school for meets was what made her hesitant about joining track, but her concerns were addressed and remedied quickly.
“That’s the good thing about going to a small school is most of your coaches are teachers,” Hall said. “All my teachers have been really supportive. I’m really glad I did it.”
While Hall acknowledged there are high expectations that come with joining a defending district champion and state runner-up team as a freshman--particularly joining a back-to-back state champion 4x200 team--her upperclassmen teammates said they are glad to have her. Rogers was particularly impressed with how Hall did during a meet over spring break versus some accomplished seniors.
“I’m gonna hype her up for a minute,” said Rogers, prompting smiles and laughs from her relay teammates. “She really pushes us in the 200. She actually motivates me because she’s so fast. She’s so hard working. It’s been fun to have her. She’s fit in so perfectly.”
Perhaps the biggest dilemma in a season like this one, particularly with a wide open state title chase, is figuring out who to put in what event. The 2A classification is stacked this season with athletes like defending four-time individual state champion Emma Clark, a Melba senior who signed with Northwest Nazarene for basketball and track, and Cole Valley’s Brooke Weimer, a junior who currently leads Idaho in every classification for the girls 400 (56.98), 100 hurdles (14.72), 300 hurdles (43.89) and long jump (19 feet, four inches).
Holdaway has competed in five individual events and the 4x100 this season, emphasizing the 100 and 200 a bit more than last year. As a sophomore and junior, Holdaway anchored the 4x100 and 4x200 to consecutive state titles. Schwieder said she has coached Holdaway since seventh grade, and they discussed early on this season about moving to three individual events and a relay rather than two individual events and two relays.
“I know it’s hard for her because she wanted to be part of the 3-peat team,” Schwieder said. “The thing about Jordi is she’s so motivated. She wants to beat Emma Clark, and now Brooke Weimer is on her radar.”
With that same approach, Wood has competed in the 100 more this season and Sermon and Rogers have delved into long jump. Aware of the tight state trophy race that could unfold, the relay teammates said they don’t want to get too far ahead of themselves.
“We’re trying to focus on our team and things we can improve,” Sermon said.
“We’re preparing for anything to happen," added Wood, a junior.
Schwieder said there is always a surprise team at state that starts piling up enough points to join the trophy conversation--Declo has done that in recent years--and choosing entries for districts can be challenging because those become state entries should those athletes qualify. She added that the Panthers have the benefit of having teams like Salmon and Firth in the same district. Salmon won its first girls track state title in 2017, placed fourth last year and third in 2016 while Firth took second in 2013, 2014 and 2015 and is in strong contention for state hardware this year.
“Firth is doing really well,” Schwieder said. “They have a good coaching staff as well. It’s a chess match. You’re figuring out where to put athletes but watching other teams’ seasons and how their kids are doing in what events. It’s gonna be a fun couple of weeks.”
While they humorously expressed the desire to be part of potential four-peat state championships in the 4x100 and 4x200, Sermon and Holdaway said they are excited to know the Panthers are gaining athletes like Hall. All five girls in those relays have been track teammates since middle school, and they expressed gratitude for their shared experiences and milestones as part of this era of West Jefferson track.
“It’s just cool being part of something this big,” Rogers said. “My teammates are more than my friends. They’re more like family. That’s how it’s always been.”